South Arlington's 23rd Street just got a classy new resident, Cafe Pizzaiolo, with clay- oven-baked pizza good enough to walk there for, even on the muggiest day.
The northern side of South 23rd Street has long been Arlington's own boardwalk, with an interesting assortment of locally owned restaurants, including the adjacent Eastern European Bistro Bulgari and Stars and Stripes, a tribute to the military, at the end of the block.
Opened several months ago, Cafe Pizzaiolo adds a shot of modern Italian flair to the block. Located on South 23rd and Eads streets, the restaurant is light-filled and airy, with dashes of neon color and chic wrought-iron seating, at both dining and bar tables. A tiled pathway leads to the main counter, where takeout orders can be placed. The cafe is WiFi-equipped for those who just can't leave work behind.
Pizza is the glory of the restaurant, though other dishes on the menu also shine. Chef Larry Ponzi, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Christine Ponzi, spent eight years opening and managing museum restaurants and cafes for Restaurant Associates, including the much praised Mitsitam Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. He also once ran the kitchen at the Houston's in Georgetown.
Cafe Pizzaiolo is an homage to Ponzi's Italian grandmother, "an awesome cook," and South Arlington was chosen because he thought the area lacked a great pizza restaurant.
The pizzas here are baked on clay tiles in a gas oven. Though this method doesn't give the smoky taste of a wood-fired oven, it produces the bubbly, slightly charred, thin crust that many know as New York-style pizza. And at temperatures in excess of 700 degrees, it takes about three minutes to cook them. The sourdough crust is a beauty, with just the right yeasty taste. And the pizza tastes much like you'd find in northern Italy, a simple affair with just a couple of toppings.
A New York-style pepperoni pizza was just about perfect, with a thinner-than-usual tomato sauce that glides over rather than cloaks the fragile dough and tangy pepperoni that didn't overpower the nutty taste of the crust.
But Ponzi specifically honors his grandmother's native Naples with a more subtly flavored Neapolitan pizza, whose olive oil-based crust requires gentler handling and gentler temperatures. It is baked in a different spot in the pizza ovens to ensure that it isn't overcooked. It arrives at the table with a pale golden crust and is almost chewy, in contrast to the crisp New York cracker crust.
The specialties of Cafe Pizzaiolo are classics: The Neapolitan has tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil, and the New York-style has shredded mozzarella and tomato sauce.
But you can choose from a long list of toppings to customize either pizza.
A word of warning: Don't pile on the toppings. Because the pizzas cook so quickly, adding several toppings creates the probability that the high temperatures will coax liquid from the ingredients, and that is likely to result in a soggy crust, especially in the middle.
Ponzi said he tries to compensate for the weight of some of the ingredients, such as pineapple. If you place liquid-heavy pineapple on the crust before putting it in the oven, it is apt to soak through and make the crust stick to the wooden pizza paddle, so Ponzi usually adds pineapple after a pizza has been in the oven.
A Neapolitan pizza ordered with sausage, green peppers and onions was slightly soggy in the middle, the peppers and onions were barely cooked, and their flavors didn't have time to marry. The sausage also was tamer than I expected and didn't have much taste.
There are lots of other good things on the menu: The meatball sandwich's tomato sauce and mozzarella combine beautifully, and its meatballs were flavorful without being cloying. The restaurant's steak-and-cheese sandwich is one of the area's better efforts. The pita-piadina (the piadina is basically pizza dough baked into a flatbread that is used as the base of the sandwich) is vegetarian and includes hummus (tasting a bit too much of tahini), cucumber, lettuce, tomato and roasted peppers.
It wouldn't be Italian without a panino, and here it includes proscuitto, arugula, roasted tomato and Parmesan cheese hot-pressed on ciabatta bread.
The restaurant also features a hot pasta dish daily, as well as pizza slices.
And it serves breakfast, with a menu that includes omelets, breakfast sandwiches, bagels and biscotti.
There is a broad selection of unusual soft drinks and beers in the cooler and a small, but well-edited, list of wines, which are available by the glass or the bottle, to drink there or take home. There is a small list of desserts, including gelato, which was served much too cold. But the coffee is Illy, and it's Italian good.
Ponzi said most of his patrons work or live nearby, some of them coming in several times a week. But this is pizza worth making a trip for. And although parking on the street is a problem, there is a commercial parking lot at the rear.
--Nancy Lewis (May 24, 2007)